Is It Time To Resurrect The Ancient Fair of Donnybrook?

Donnybrook Fair by Erskine Nichol

By Eoin Meegan

The ancient fair at Donnybrook, once an annual event on the village green (now the site of Bective Rangers, Old Wesley, and part of Herbert Park), had earned itself the reputation of being infamous; a place of drinking, fighting and all kinds of debauchery.

But is this reputation really deserved, or has its infamy been wildly exaggerated? Today we ask, has the time come to bring back this ancient landmark festival?  

Donnybrook Fair came into existence from a patent granted by King John to Dublin Corporation in 1204, and initially ran for eight days, later extended to fifteen. However, its roots go further back in time to the ancient Lughnasadh fair on this spot. The Lughnasadh was a combination of a horse fair, social gathering, and a place where marriages were arranged.

All elements, as we shall see, that were present at Donnybrook Fair. It probably shared in the tradition of the great Southern European carnivals, which usually took place on Shrove Tuesday. However, the meet at Donnybrook was originally held in May, later changed to August, perhaps because of the Irish weather.

Horses and other livestock were traded; apparently it was the go-to place for Dublin cabbies to get the best horses. At one time many such fairs took place throughout Ireland; Kerry’s Puck Fair is a contemporary remnant. But Donnybrook undoubtedly was the largest.

Music and theatre were an integral part of the fair. Pipers and fiddle players from all over the country would congregate, ensuring a fortnight of dancing, singing, storytelling and poetry recitals. Very popular, at the time, were truncated versions of Shakespearean plays, including Macbeth and Othello, while, according to Ó Maitiú, the drama became slightly more risqué in the fair’s later life.

Food and drink, as would be expected, were in plentiful supply: numerous tents advertised round ribs, boiled chicken, Wicklow ham and other delicacies, accompanied by cabbage, dishes of potatoes, and carts of bread, to be washed down liberally with strong punch and ale.

A selection of top vintners and hoteliers in the city set up tents at the fair, some of these quite elaborate, including MacNamara’s of Kevin Street, and the Carlingford Beefsteak of Aston Quay; testimony to the high standard of the food and the esteem the fair was held in.

The Freeman’s Journal of August 1819 writes of the fair, “the greatest harmony and good humour prevailed throughout the day and numerous groups were to be seen recreating and amusing themselves in an innocent manner.” While, in respect to women attending, Saunders’ Newsletter recounts, “many females of the higher respectability drove through the Fair during the day, and the scene, in consequence of the beauty of the weather, was particularly animated.” If we view Donnybrook fair through the lens of a cultural gathering it wasn’t all that different from Féile or Electric Picnic.

Entertainment and exotica became an integral part of the fair. There were tightrope walkers, professional circus performers, and a fun fair with swinging boats; even fireworks on certain nights. It attracted notable performance artists from around the world, such as Bell’s American Circus, and Polito’s and Wombwell’s, menageries.

Levi Leach, an American contortionist, who claimed to have performed for the US President, performed there in 1815, and the Irish Giant, reputedly ten-foot tall, made an appearance. Early sporting fixtures were also a feature, including boxing and wrestling, and perhaps racing competitions between men.

So, how then did it get its name for notoriety; not just fighting, but drunkenness, and people openly engaging in sexual acts? Well, there are a number of explanations. Some of these may have their origin in the organised showpieces. Seamas Ó Maitiú tells us, “Much of the violence was sublimated into ritual such as mock battles and cudgel play in a similar way much of the sex was expressed in innuendo and double meaning,” (The Humours of Donnybrook, 1995). It’s not hard to see how time and careless reporting could transfer this mock play to the actual activity of those attending. Some writers, of course, did so deliberately.

Some elements of the English media liked to define the entire Irish race by the perceived yardstick of the fair; drunkenness, brawling, and bawdiness, often accompanied by sketches that suggest the worst excesses of caricature and an anti-Irish bias.

Paddy was never happier than when roaring drunk and beating someone over the head with his shillelagh. Soon the truth becomes a hostage to cultural stereotyping. Estyn Evans in his book ‘Irish Folk Ways’ (1845) was the first to apply the moniker “infamous” to the fair, a term that has pretty much stuck.

And while, undoubtedly, the fair did give young people a chance, rarely afforded, to get up to high jinks, this hardly gives us the right to recast it as the Woodstock of its day. According to Barrington’s Memoirs, while things got boisterous towards the end of the eighteenth century they improved in the following one. In 1841 it was estimated that a crowd of 74,792 attended in one day alone.

Undoubtedly, with such a large attendance, and poor policing, it would be disingenuous to suggest a brawl never broke out, but you have to ask was it much worse than your average Saturday night in Temple Bar?  

Of course, with even the whiff of any scandal or impropriety it’s not surprising that both Churches, Protestant and Catholic set their face against the fair. Catholicism was a resurgent power in the nineteenth century following Catholic emancipation in 1829. And whatever about open sexual acts, match-making did take place at the fair, and sometimes young couples eloped and were married there by a defrocked priest simply known as the Tack’em.

Indeed, a certain Fr. Kearney of Liffey Street commented that the number of marriages contracted immediately after the fair was disproportionate to that of any other time of the year. This would have been an anathema to a growing puissant church that felt it had the moral authority to prescribe the sexual mores of the people.  

In 1866 Donnybrook acquired a new church; the existing St Mary’s dating back to 1787 was in a state of serious disrepair. But incredibly this very edifice became intertwined in the story of Donnybrook fair, as if somehow, the fair was its raison d’être and not to replace a crumbling and defunct one.

Dr. O’Connell the parish priest of Donnybrook at the time announced that the new church was to be named the Church of the Sacred Heart, and built as an act of atonement or expiation for the sins of the fair over the centuries.

This, in a very overt way puts the church on a collision course with the fair. Further, Fr. Patrick Nowlan, a zealous young curate who came to Donnybrook in 1853, seemed to set out on a one-man crusade almost to have the fair shut down. 

Located just across the river, on the south side of the Dodder, physically imposing, morally threatening, casting a shadow over the old fair green where the fair once was held, the new structure seemed to embody the arrival of a new power that would not tolerate opposition.

Even the opening day of the new church was carefully selected. This was August 26, 1866, known as Walking Sunday, the day when people came out from the city to see the tents being erected and have a family fun day out, and which heralded the start of the two-week extravaganza.

Ó Maitiú, describes the events of 1866 as nothing less than a “showdown” between the fair and the church.  

Officiating at this auspicious opening was none other than Paul Cullen, archbishop of Dublin and newly made cardinal. He had set up the Synod of Thurles to establish ecclesiastic discipline and to romanise the Irish church.

This regulated the custom for priests to dress in black and wear the collar, and be called ‘Father’. Prior to that in Ireland priests were addressed as mister, or even by their first name. Cardinal Cullen almost single-handedly created the brand of Catholicism that was to prevail for the next hundred years in Ireland.

Staunchly conservative, he took an active part in the First Vatican Council in 1866 as a proponent of papal infallibility, even writing the draft formula that framed it. The wild, slightly pagan element of Donnybrook fair did not, it seems, fit in with the Catholic Ireland he envisioned.

The attitude of the Catholic Church however, only reflected a deeper mood that was prevalent in society at this time. It was one which advocated sobriety and a new kind of puritanism, and concerned itself with the moral husbandry of citizens, particularly apprentices and living-in servants, as if somehow they were the property of their respective masters.

The Temperance movement was on the rise and the Wesleyans had moved into Donnybrook. A new merchant class was in the ascendency, Catholics as well as Protestants, who acquired houses on Morehampton Road and Ailesbury Road and wanted to preserve an air of respectability.

They viewed the fair as a nuisance, and perhaps saw it as lowering the value of their property. Old-fashioned class snobbery also played a part in the demise of Donnybrook Fair! Fergus D’Arcy is probably accurate when he assigned the fair’s demise to “the cultural consequence of class formation in Dublin” (“The Decline and Fall of Donnybrook Fair,” JSTOR, 1988).  

Henceforth, momentum grew in the nineteenth century to have the fair closed down. However, as the Royal Charter could not legally be set aside this was no easy task. Dublin Corporation was powerless to act as they no longer held the patent, having sold it to Henry Ussher in the 1690s to clear outstanding debts. In 1756 William Wolsey acquired it, and finally John Madden in 1812. When he died the patent fell to his sister Eleanor.

A plan was devised to purchase the patent and let it lapse, one of the driving forces behind this initiative being the aforementioned Fr. Nowlan. Nowlan arranged a meeting in the Mansion House with the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Joseph Boyce, and a committee was set up to oversee the purchase of the patent. A public subscription was opened and money gathered from all quarters.

Eleanor Madden was a deeply religious woman and apparently fell under the spell of the charismatic new curate, who, only two years after he arrived in the parish secured the patent for the princely sum of £3,000. (There is a plaque commemorating Fr. Nowlan to this day inside Donnybrook church.)

So the fair officially came to an end in 1855. But this wasn’t the last of it. Joseph Dillon, the nephew of the aforesaid Madden, owned a pub on or near ‘Brookvale Road’ – which some locals still refer to as Dillon’s Row – approximately where the Ever Ready Garage is today. The licence covered both the pub, thought to be called the Rose Tavern, as well as the grounds outside, known as Dillon’s field. So, by this somewhat ingenious loophole Donnybrook Fair continued, albeit in an attenuated state, for another thirteen years. By all accounts, the licence was in his daughter Eliza’s name, and from the sketchy information we have it would appear she was the driving force in keeping it open.

When the authorities revoked her licence in 1859, the pub continued to operate on a spirit grocer’s licence (the equivalent of an off-licence today). During the fair they sold food only, and invited publicans from various parts of the city to set up tents in their field. However, they faced ongoing harassment from the DMP (Dublin Metropolitan Police) and the threat of closure hung perpetually over them like the sword of Damocles.

In addition, they came under ecclesiastical fire in the form of a pastoral letter read out in every church in Dublin in 1860. This letter denounced Dillon’s attempt to keep the fair open. However, despite this, Eliza managed to keep going for two years after the new church was opened. But in the end it was a battle she could never win, and in 1868 Donnybrook Fair was to close for the last time.  

So is it time to resurrect this great Dublin institution? Was its “infamy” really deserved, and if so, should an event that lasted for over 600 years be judged by its lowest common denominator? I think a lot of the calumny levelled against the fair is misplaced, and certainly the excessive sexual licence exaggerated, if not invented.

All things considered, a very good argument could be made that the time is right to bring the fair back. And as for any erstwhile notoriety, that’s really a moot point, because a revised fair in Donnybrook would not look anything like its original.

Today, it would be reimagined as a festival of culture, theatre, and the arts, and would have to comply fully with Health and Safety. There’d be sporting events, a play area, and activities for children; in short it would be an event for all the family. Therefore, the sale of alcohol would be restricted to designated areas, with everything properly policed.

Such an occasion every summer would be a great boost to an ever-diminishing Donnybrook, and bring in much-needed revenue, both at a local level and to the Exchequer. But above all, it would carry an historical precedent, a longevity and historicity that no other part of Dublin can boast, going back almost a thousand years, and probably more. Let’s hope this great revival happens, and we can all once more look forward to – albeit in a peaceable manner – “having a donnybrook.”